Outside the Government: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?

(17 comments)


It’s October 29th, 2007. Leona Lewis is at number one with “Bleeding Love,” and remains so for both weeks of this story. Take That, Westlife, Britney Spears, and Oasis also chart. So that’s depressing. In news, substantial wildfires break out in California, the UK announces that it will begin requiring passports for Irish people wanting to visit the UK, and a strike breaks out among American screenwriters, effectively ending television production for the 2007-08 season.

On television we have what is clearly designed to be one of the marquee stories of the first season, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? The basic premise is a standard - an It’s a Wonderful Life number, only mostly staying in the world in which Sarah Jane has been removed instead of on Sarah Jane herself. This conceit is woven around a newly revealed secret origin for Sarah Jane, in which we find out that as a child she was unable to stop her friend Andrea from drowning while they snuck onto a pier during a school trip. Under the machinations of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ signature villain, the Trickster, this is reversed so that Andrea lives and Sarah Jane dies as a child, leading to a world in which only Maria knows what was supposed to happen and tries desperately to set things right.

First and foremost, then, this becomes a showcase for Yasmin Paige, who sparkles in it. Paige is in many ways the secret ingredient of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ first season, proving adept at both the plucky young female adventurer role and at selling real emotional content. She was in many ways the best thing about Eye of the Gorgon, and here she’s left with most of the first episode to anchor on her own, which she manages with aplomb. But in many ways more interesting is the second episode after Maria is similarly taken off the board (this time via a Graske, since the costume was presumably just lying around), leading to the rather charming spectacle of Alan having to save the day.

There are quibbles to be had, certainly. There may never be an entirely persuasive argument for the claim that Sarah Jane really needed a traumatic origin retconned into her life, or that the addition of a dead childhood friend she failed to save adds anything to the character. The central event here, Andrea’s death, doesn’t really fit with Sarah Jane as we know her. Secret tragedies don’t quite become Sarah Jane. It’s not that the actual idea is terribly off - it’s not. It’s just that in introducing it, the fact that Sarah Jane is really, at her core, a Doctor Who companion from 1974 introduced at a point when the female companion was being treated as a profoundly interchangeable part, and elevated to classic status more because of Elisabeth Sladen’s skill than because she was ever intricately conceived or full of nuance. Secret childhood traumas just aren’t things that fit organically with the sort of character she is.

And yet to some extent this is the point; that Sarah Jane has moved on from Andrea’s death, leaving it wholly in the past. In an odd way, this makes Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane a more unnerving and bleak rumination on death than even Doctor Who usually manages. What jumps out about it is not merely Andrea’s acceptance of death, a plot point that is, let’s be fair, more than slightly similar to Father’s Day. Rather it is the way in which Andrea’s death is more all-encompassing. Pete was defined by his visible absence before Father’s Day - there was always necessarily going to be some sort of story to explain what happened to Rose’s father. But Andrea was, coming into Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, inessential to the narrative for the simple reason that she is introduced alongside the gap into which she’s inserted. Accordingly, the return of the status quo - Andrea being dead and Sarah Jane being alive - is ultimately a world in which Andrea does not exist even in the form of her absence. And sure enough, unlike Pete, once her death is squared away, she never really impacts the story again.

But in its own way this is a more chilling take on death. Father’s Day is, in a variety of ways, about the possibility of holding back death. It’s only a spot of bad luck (Jackie pushing baby Rose into adult Rose’s hands) that prevents the Doctor from being able to save Pete. And even though he fails at that, Pete is ultimately back next season, and restored to Rose’s life. The Doctor can bring back the dead, at least in this case. And even in the ways he can’t, the absence of Pete, under his influence, becomes a site of healing and reconcilliation. It’s ultimately Rose’s invocation of her father that persuades Jackie to help her in Parting of the Ways. But whatever traces Andrea’s life leaves behind, they are ultimately invisible. It is not so much that Andrea’s death enables us to have Sarah Jane and her adventures as that her life and presence prohibits them. (In an odd but not entirely inappropriate coincidence, Andrea shares her name with a Texan woman who was back in the news in 2006/07 as she successfully appealed her conviction for drowning her children on the grounds of mental illness. Inadvertent as it may be, the symbolism is potent.) This parallels well with the Trickster’s motivations, which are at once straightforwardly evil (destroy the planet) and oddly impersonal. The Trickster is destructive not out of malice, but because that is the Trickster’s nature: destructive chaos. Its very presence harms the narrative.

This is reflected in the most interesting aspect of Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, which is just how absent most of the cast is. Luke is almost completely eliminated from the plot. Sarah Jane is barely in the first episode and, in the second episode, is mostly there to have the plot explained to her. Clyde gets little more than a cameo. Even Maria, ostensibly the focus of the first episode, is aggressively sidelined in the second, such that the bulk of the actual worldsaving duties fall to Alan, who isn’t even a regular. Andrea functions as the exact opposite of Pete - a character not defined by the traces of her absence but by the problems of her present. Yes, the end of the episode’s claim that Andrea’s death inspires Sarah Jane to be the adventuring hero we know is in some sense true, but it’s true not because Andrea’s death provides necessary background to understanding Sarah’s motivations (which were perfectly clear in 1974 and never really clouded) but because Andrea’s life erased them. In this regard death becomes unnervingly like what’s suggested in Torchwood: nothing, save for whatever traces you may have left in the world.

The use of Alan as the end hero also highlights the real effect of Sarah Jane, and represents one of the bolder moves the series has made. It would have been terribly easy to keep Alan in place as the hapless dupe - the well-meaning adult who’s too comically thick to realise the blatantly obvious fact that every time he appears he’s menaced by aliens. He’s already been possessed by a soft drink and turned to stone, and so we’re just a third iteration of this away from a running joke that would be perfectly standard within the genre context. But instead The Sarah Jane Adventures swerves and takes the more series-altering option of having Alan step in, save the day, and find out the extent of what’s going on. Yes, it gets derailed before long because Yasmin Paige leaves the series to focus on her schooling, but it’s a fantastic move for what it is.

There’s also an inversion of the usual order of things within The Sarah Jane Adventures, which has typically been about adults initiating children into the world of the magical. Here we get an adult initiated by the children. This provides an interesting expansion of the show’s themes thus far. Previously it has been a love letter to the Doctor Who that adults remember, and a vehicle for preserving that sort of show and passing it to a new generation. But here we get something different - a story in which adults are given permission to enter the world of Doctor Who by children. Which is, of course, just as true an account of The Sarah Jane Adventures as the first one. The reason that adults are in a position to have these love letters to the series’ past is, in the end, that there’s a new Doctor Who for children. It’s the fact that the show is popular enough to sustain a children’s spin-off that allows for this celebration of the past.

In this regard it’s fitting that Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane is the first time that the Doctor plays into the narrative in a meaningful sense, with the Trickster planning to move on to him after defeating Sarah Jane. (And indeed, that’s what the Trickster ends up doing in Season Four of Doctor Who) Here The Sarah Jane Adventures makes its first play at narrative collapse, threatening the entire structure of Doctor Who and its spinoffs. And it does so in a way specific to The Sarah Jane Adventures, by attacking the intergenerational connections over Doctor Who. The result is a story of odd poignance - one in which the real emotion is not the contrived tragedy in Sarah Jane’s past, but the scenes in which Alan rushes headlong into a world he doesn’t understand out of nothing more than love for his daughter. A story that pretends to be about its lead character’s past is, in reality, about a father and his daughter, and the way their relationship is mediated by Sarah Jane. It is, on the whole, rather beautiful.

Comments

Anton B 3 years, 10 months ago

I know everyone's a little diverted by other news today but can I just thank you for another excellent SJA post. I never considered this as a narrative collapse which might affect the parent show and your tying it to the father/daughter relationship and the effect of non-existence. Rose's father being defined by his virtual absence while Andrea becomes defined by our own existance in a world in which she doesn't exist, even in the form of her absence.

' ...the Trickster’s motivations...are at once straightforwardly evil (destroy the planet) and oddly impersonal. The Trickster is destructive not out of malice, but because that is the Trickster’s nature: destructive chaos. Its very presence harms the narrative.'

I think The Trickster is an underused and underdeveloped adversary for the Doctor (who has himself been described as a trickster, there's a potential plot right there). I'd love Moffat or whoever comes next to revive the character to play against the Capaldi Doctor.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 10 months ago

I agree, he's a great character, and the makeup is genuinely creepy (when done right, which it wasn't quite in his next appearance). I found the scenes of Andrea demanding to know why her existence was less important than Sarah Jane's to be very moving. And in a GREAT piece of meta-textuality, Andrea was played by Jane Asher, who was considered as a casting choice for the new companion before they hired Elisabeth Sladen!

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 3 years, 10 months ago

What other news? The OPCW winning the Peace Prize?

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

Don't worry, Lord, I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunity to talk about it during Saturday Waffling!

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

The other news would be the newly released "Enemy if the World" and "Web of Fear" serials starring Patrick Troughton.

I'll take the other tack and say that I don't like the Trickster that much. He just doesn't hook me in any way, shape or form. I don't really see his make up as memorable, and he's got one really good plan: Remove the hero (Sarah Jane, Donna) from the narrative and let things happen. Take with the fact that "Random Chaos" isn't really that interesting as a motivation and he's really just a second string baddy. Maybe one of the GI incarnations?

I will cop to the fact that the "Wonderful Life" story is one of my least favorite narratives, and that this may bias me against the Trickster. I first saw the movie when I was 9 and it stuck with me as one of the most horrific things that could happen. I had nightmares for weeks. Every time a show does this story, I end up loving it a little less after.

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

One thing that often gets me about this blog is that it takes a story and then proceeds to explain to me why I feel as I do about it - something I'm not very good at doing on my own. So thanks for that! (Other times, of course, it explains to me what other people get out of a story; and occasionally, in so doing, it allows me to give things another chance.)

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

The Trickster, for me, is one of those characters who seems deliberately coded to seem epic, but never actually does anything to justify it. He's all "I'm a big spooky chaos god from beyond the outer wastes... Who mostly sets up adventure-game puzzles to ensnare amateur alien fighers and gets handily defeated by children on a regular basis."

I do notice, though, that every time he shows up, his opening move is to take Sarah Jane out of the equasion, sidelining her so that the kids have to save the day on their own. So it's a nice touch that his agent who appears in 'Turn Left' does exactly the same thing to the Doctor.

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Anton B 3 years, 10 months ago

I feel The Trickster has more potential as a recurring character than the Master (panto-villain motives and overly convoluted plans) or the Great Intelligence (unclear motive and even more convoluted plans involving surrogate third parties) The Doctor needs to face off against an agent of entropy to show him the dark side of his own chaotic nature. We've seen it manifest as the Valyard and the Dream Lord but an external force which mirrors his potential for temporal anarchy would be a fantastic foe.

Ross I take your point but it's the very childish and petulant but also deadly nature of the Trickster which appeals to me. Setting up 'adventure game puzzles' reminds me of the best comic book villains like the Joker or Mr. Mxyzptlk.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 3 years, 10 months ago

this is where SJA starts to veer back and forth over more adult territory, hinting at the more difficult aspects of taking sarah jane out of reality, not only the meta reality of her own universe, but out of our universe, taking her out of our lives as there would be no Ark In Space, no Genesis of the Daleks without Sarah, Harry and the Doctor. It is a narrative collapse that threatens our own memories as we try to understand how different the 4th Doctor's era would have been wthout Liz Sladen. But while it hints at some of the nihilistic aspects, it, of course doesn't dive into them. Like a skiff, the story tacks and forth. One season in, Sarah Jane is trying to figure out what sorts of stories it can tell. And this is one that profoundly affects those of us who were happiest to see Liz is School Reunion, those of us who had watched her walk out of the Tardis post-Eldrad too many times.

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

With the return of the lost episodes, this one might get overlooked. Which would be a pity, as it's really quite excellent -- especially given how rich it is with modern esoteric symbolism.

First off, this is a story that's structured like the significant symbols within it. There's the puzzle box -- this is a puzzle-box story, not unlike the puzzle-box story we got in Blink. More interestingly, the significant emotional moments in the story happen in front of mirrors, and the mirror is perhaps the most apt way to describe the underlying design of the story.

The most obvious mirroring is between Sarah Jane and Andrea -- they switch places at a moment of death, and Andrea takes Sarah Jane's place. She steps into Sarah Jane's house, appears in photos where Sarah Jane once appeared, befriends people Sarah Jane befriended. But there's also the mirroring of Maria and her father -- when she is taken from the world, he is put in her place, remembering someone who's lost, and struggling to get anyone else to believe him.

But what really makes this prescient is how it conflates Death with Remembering. These are huge themes in the Moffat era, and there's a lot of Moffaty touches in this story -- not just the mirrors and boxes, which have littered the past few years, but things like Trickster monster, which is "no one" and has no eyes and looks astoundingly like the Whispermen of the Series 7 finale. There's a trip to the Library, where the original death is discovered. Andrea/Sarah Jane's death happening over a body of Water. The oft repeated question, "Who are you?" A close-up on a Eye, and a couple of "eye" jokes -- the Tricksterman has no eyes, but feeds on "blind chance" and is "no one" which means he has no "I".

We also get a place that could very well be "death." It's white, it's vaguely cloudy, and both Sarah Jane and Maria end up there when they're removed from the world. It's a place of nothingness, a "limbo" according to Sarah Jane, a place where they are "lost." But this is also the place where Sarah Jane and Maria themselves are mirrored, the two lost girls removed from time. When Maria is returned to the world, all the gaps in Alan's life are filled in. Likewise, when Andrea throws the puzzle box into the mirror (the place of reveresed identity) to go back on her deal, all the gaps in Maria's life are restored.

This is also a story that subtly invokes the Divine Feminine. Alan asks Andrea what she remembers about Maria, and in trying to cover up she invokes "Ave Maria," which is a prayer. The "Hail Mary" (????? ????? ???????????? in Koiné Greek, or chaíre María kecharit?mén?) asks for the blessings of a woman at the hour of death.

Finally, time travel's a beach.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 10 months ago

Quick OT note for Phil: Is it just me, or are some Hartnell links missing from the Eruditorum archive (/p/tardis-eruditorum.html)? When the list loads, it begins with The Ark for me...?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

There's a bug in the code that generates the archive that results in the ToC having a maximum length, which we've now exceeded. It's being worked on.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

In an odd but not entirely inappropriate coincidence

Are you sure it's a coincidence? I always figured it was probably deliberate. Google tells me that the case got a fair bit of coverage in the British press.

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Galadriel 3 years, 10 months ago

The premature departure of Maria was, in context, rather like the loss of Rose in season two (never realized that before your post on Martha. ) Maria was the first character we met in the pilot, so we really were seeing through her eyes. And even when she leaves, we see her in a supporting position later.
What I found really interesting about this episode didn't show up until I rewatched it after Sladen's death. The story makes a meta-narrative point about lost stories, one that is even more relevant with the recent retrieval of Web of Fear and Enemy of the World. When the Trickster removes Sarah Jane prematurely, the only person who remembers her is Maria. This "missing episode" threatens universal collapse, and only by the dedication of those who remember is the world restored.

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neroden@gmail 3 years, 8 months ago

Ah, the beginning of the Gareth Roberts masterpieces for Sarah Jane Adventures. For some reason he really found his footing here.

And I have to say, I love 30 minutes episodes.

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Terry 2 years, 7 months ago

What I'm wondering is thus: will the TARDIS Eruditorium, when it comes around to the Tennant era being released in book form, include the SJA or will there be a separate book on the SJAs?

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

There will be a Torchwood/Sarah Jane Adventures/Sherlock book. (Probably. There's a slight chance of me moving Sherlock into the Smith and Capaldi books. But definitely a Torchwood/Sarah Jane book.)

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